Back in the day when old-media ruled, Tina Brown and Bonnie Fuller were presiding over their magazines at opposite ends of the pop cultural spectrum — doling out heaping helpings of celebrity journalism to the masses. Brown revived Vanity Fair in the ’80s and reinvigorated the New Yorker in the ’90s. Fuller, having cut a wide swath through women’s magazines via Glamour and Cosmopolitan, transformed the also-ran Us Weekly into a cheeky must-read tabloid. At the time, moving into the digital world seemed like more of a vanity project than a key strategic decision to build a brand or generate all-important buzz.
That was then. This is now.
Both of these famously prescient women have chosen the blogosphere for their next act. But can these former publishing divas count on the same skill set to succeed on the Web? While their star power gives them an edge among the growing pack of intrepid Internet entrepreneurs, which includes former New York Times film reporter Sharon Waxman, they face the same issues — most notably a crowded field and a perilous economic climate — that could pose serious challenges to their cyberspace ambitions.
Brown’s site, launched in early October and backed by Barry Diller’s IAC, is quintessential Tina. Named for the fictional newspaper in Evelyn Waugh’s 1938 novel “Scoop,” the Daily Beast is composed of Brown’s signature mix of high and low culture (translation: lots of celebrity-related coverage) whose tagline directs visitors to “Read This, Skip That.”
Brown estimates that 40% of the Daily Beast’s content is original and the rest is linked. As the news aggregator site’s self-
described “curator,” she’s assembled a full-time staff of 20 (including former Wall Street Journal deputy managing editor Edward Felsenthal) and a roster of noteworthy contributors including Nigella Lawson and Somali-born political activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali.
Brown describes the Daily Beast’s tone as “sophisticated, skeptical and amused,” adding, “I have really tried to avoid snark. In this horrible time we’re living in, nobody needs more negative stuff out there.”
Brown says she’s undaunted by the bleak economic climate. “One of the things I find so exciting about the online world,” she observes, “is how fast you can build a brand.”
Daily Beast g.m. Caroline Marks, a former Comcast Interactive Media executive, says, “Advertising and sponsorship is the dominant business model that we’ll follow,” and the site could start running ads in a month. She declines to give any traffic figures but says it has “far outreached our expectations, and we’ve surpassed our projections.”
She adds: “If the last three years have told us anything, it’s that celebrity is the most significant driver of news, and I don’t expect that to go away anytime soon.”
Not surprisingly, according to Marks, within days of the Daily Beast’s launch, the first big bump in traffic came courtesy of Hollywood when Brown decided to run a spiked version of Kevin Sessums’ interview with Jennifer Lopez that was originally assigned as an Elle cover story. After finding herself discussing breast feeding her twins and the emotional upheaval of being a first-time mother, Lopez decided she wasn’t comfortable with the direction of the piece, and another writer was assigned to the story.
Sessums, who worked with Brown at Vanity Fair, gave his story to the Daily Beast. “I thought it was a fabulous way for a star to come to us and be real,” Brown says. “I think it made her look very human talking in real ways about being a young mother.
“Some publicists are so overprotective. If a star was just allowed to be themselves they would get better press.”
There’s no word on how unvarnished the stars will be on Fuller’s yet-to-be-launched site, which will be the centerpiece of Bonnie Fuller Media. Co-founder Russ Pillar, former head of Viacom’s interactive division, has invested in the venture through his 5858 Group. Fuller is extremely tight-lipped on offering details, including the site’s name or launch date, but maintains celeb-related content will be just a part of what’s in store for her target audience of women 20 to 40.
The newly minted CEO says she’ll be very hands-on when the site is up and running, but she demurs when asked what would make hers different from the other female-centric sites heavy on entertainment and style coverage. “It will be similar to what I’ve done at Us Weekly and Star,” she offers, “inasmuch as I’m looking at celebrities as human beings women can relate to — human beings who’ve got personal issues and challenges like the ones you face in your life.”
For both Brown and Fuller, the Huffington Post provides a proven template on how to harness the power of celebrity. (Fuller has been a regular blogger on the site, weighing in on such topics as Jamie Lynn Spears’ pregnancy and Miley Cyrus’ partially clad photo shoot in Vanity Fair.)
Arianna Huffington also has given stars a forum to offer their own version of stories that fuel the tabloids. When the news broke that Rob Lowe was being sued by his former nanny, the actor decided to go public about it on the site. “He was ahead of the press,” Huffington says. “It’s the new way of dealing with good news and bad news.”
With the election driving as many as 32 million unique visits in September, Huffington Post recently landed another cash infusion from the venture capitalist firm Softbank. “We are expanding,” she says. “We are launching a new book vertical and doing a lot with our Living section that’s become increasingly important.” She points to new advertisers Starbucks and Microsoft as a sign of the site’s economic vitality. “Advertising is the way to go,” she says. “The subscription model is pretty much dead unless you’re a weird porn site.”
Former New York Times entertainment reporter Waxman bailed on the print world and launched WaxWord.com earlier this year. “The collapse of the print model of daily journalism has left a wide-open opportunity to journalists with the inclination and stomach for it to be entrepreneurs,” says Waxman via email. “Newsprint is dead, but news is hot.” Online reporting, she says, “is about delivering news over the Internet first and then onto other platforms.”
Waxman describes her official site as offering a “high level (of) reporting and analysis about the entertainment industry and the media to the freewheeling world of the Web.”
WaxWord.com will be folded into her new venture, TheWrapNews.com, which is scheduled to launch in January and funded by yet-to-be-announced private investors. Waxman says the site also will be supported by advertising, sponsorship and syndication deals. Her aim is to become the No. 1 news and community site for entertainment and media. A tall order indeed.